WASHINGTON (AP) — In a recent closed-door meeting with leaders of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, the CIA’s No. 2 official made it clear that the fight against al-Qaeda and other extremist groups will remain a priority – but that the agency’s money and resources would focus increasingly on China.
A year after the war in Afghanistan ended, President Joe Biden and top national security officials are talking less about counterterrorism and more about the political, economic and military threats posed by China and Russia. There has been a silent pivot within the intelligence agencies, which is moving hundreds of officers to China-focused posts, including some who previously worked on terrorism.
Intelligence officials stress that the fight against terrorism is hardly ignored. Just a week ago, he revealed that a CIA drone attack had killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in Kabul. But days later, China held large-scale military exercises and threatened to cut off contact with the United States following a visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. It underscored the message CIA Deputy Director David Cohen delivered at that meeting a few weeks ago: The agency’s top priority is to try to understand and counter Beijing.
The United States has long been alarmed by China’s growing political and economic ambitions. China has attempted to influence foreign elections, mounted cyber and industrial espionage campaigns, and detained millions of minority Uyghurs in camps. Some experts also believe that Beijing will try in the coming years to seize the democratic self-governing island of Taiwan by force.
Intelligence officials said they needed more information about China, especially after they were unable to definitively pinpoint the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beijing has been accused of withholding information about the origins of the virus.
And the war in Ukraine underscored the importance of Russia as a target. The United States used declassified information to expose Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war plans before the invasion and rally diplomatic support in Kyiv.
Proponents of the Biden administration’s approach note that the fact that the United States was able to track and kill al-Zawahri is evidence of its abilities to target threats in Afghanistan from abroad. Critics say the fact that al-Zawahri was living in Kabul, under apparent Taliban protection, suggests there is a resurgence of extremist groups that America is ill-equipped to counter.
The shift in priorities is backed by many former intelligence officers and lawmakers from both parties who say it is overdue. This includes people who served in Afghanistan and other missions against Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Rep. Jason Crow, a former Army ranger who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he thinks the United States has focused too much on counterterrorism in recent years.
“A much bigger existential threat is Russia and China,” said Crow, a Colorado Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees. Terrorist groups, he said, “will not destroy the American way of life…like China can.”
CIA spokeswoman Tammy Thorp noted that terrorism “remains a very real challenge.”
“Even as crises such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and strategic challenges such as that posed by the People’s Republic of China demand our attention, the CIA will continue to aggressively track terrorist threats on a global scale. world and work with partners to counter them,” said Thorp.
Congress has pushed the CIA and other intelligence agencies to make China a top priority, according to several people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters. Pushing resources into China has required cuts elsewhere, including in the fight against terrorism. Precise figures were not available because intelligence budgets are classified.
In particular, lawmakers want more information about China’s development in advanced technologies. Under President Xi Jinping, China has committed billions of dollars of investment in quantum science, artificial intelligence and other technologies that have the potential to disrupt the way future wars are fought and economies are structured.
As part of the shift, congressional committees are trying to better track how intelligence agencies spend their funding in China, seeking more details on how specific programs contribute to that mission, a person familiar with the mission said. case.
“We’re late, but it’s good that we’re finally focusing on this area,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. “That means people, resources, military means and diplomacy.”
Last year, the CIA announced it would create two new “mission centers” – one on China, the other on emerging technologies – to centralize and improve intelligence gathering on these issues. The CIA is also trying to recruit more Chinese speakers and reduce wait times for security clearances to hire new people faster.
Within the agency, many officers are learning Chinese and moving into new China-focused roles, though not all of those jobs require language training, people familiar with the matter said.
Officials note that intelligence officers are being trained to adapt to new challenges and that many have moved more quickly into counterterrorism roles after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Counterterrorism Work Progress – including better use of data and different intelligence sources to build networks and identify targets — are also useful in countering Russia and China, former officers said.
“It’s the analysis and targeting machine that has become extraordinary,” said Douglas Wise, a former senior CIA officer who was deputy chief of operations at the counterterrorism center.
The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, renamed the Counterterrorism Mission Center in a 2015 reorganization, remains a point of pride for many who credit its work with protecting Americans from terrorism after September 11th. CIA officers landed in Afghanistan on September 26, 2001, and were part of operations to displace the Taliban and find and kill al-Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden.
And 13 years after a double agent tricked officers pursuing al-Zawahri and blew himself up, killing seven agency employees, the CIA killed him in a strike with no civilian casualties.
The CIA has also been involved in some of the darkest moments in the fight against terrorism. He operated secret “black sites” prisons to detain terrorism suspects, some wrongfully, and a Senate investigation found he used interrogation methods that amounted to torture. Elite CIA-trained Afghan special operations units have also been accused of killing civilians and violating international law.
There has long been a debate about whether counterterrorism has taken intelligence agencies too far away from traditional espionage and whether some of the CIA’s work to target terrorists should instead be done by forces specials pertaining to the army.
Marc Polymeropoulos is a retired CIA operations officer and former base chief in Afghanistan. He said he favored a greater focus on China and Russia, but added: “There is no reason to diminish what we had to do.”
“This notion that somehow all the CT work that we did, somehow, was wrong, that we took our eye off the ball – remember you just September 12 how everyone felt,” he said.
Reorienting agencies toward a greater focus on China and Russia will ultimately take years and require both patience and recognition that agency culture will take time to change, Wise said.
“For decades we’ve been doing counterterrorism,” Wise said. “We need to have a rational plan to make this adaptation, which doesn’t take so long that our enemies can exploit a glacial process.”
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